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Dave Chappelle is king of his `Block Party'

The musical lineup is formidable, but the comedian's ability to make people laugh at anything stands out.

March 03, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

For comedian Dave Chappelle, the lure of the lively show that is the centerpiece of "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" was a chance to hear music he loved. "It's a dream come true, the concert I've always wanted to see," he says. For audiences, however, the major lure is Chappelle himself.

It's not that there's any problem with the music in question. Chappelle's favorite acts include rappers Kanye West and Mos Def, powerful singers such as Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, and the first performance in seven years for the reunited Fugees and their stars Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel.

Nor is there anything wrong with the setting, a stage set up in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, or the work by cinematographer Ellen Kuras, or director Michel Gondry, who did videos for all kinds of groups, including Bjork and the White Stripes, before turning to features such as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

But trumping all these fine elements is the beguiling comic presence of Chappelle, one of those completely engaging personalities who can make you laugh at anything, even mundane events like a man on the street trying to get a worn-out car engine to turn over.

Chappelle lives in Dayton, Ohio, and one of the amusing conceits of this film is watching him act out his determination to give "golden tickets" that provide free bus transportation and lodging to lucky townspeople -- some of whom have only the vaguest idea of what rap is -- so they can afford to come to the Brooklyn concert.

Offering the biggest payoff to the film is Chappelle's willingness to bring Ohio's Central State University marching band, a.k.a. "the Invincible Marching Marauders," to the concert. Many of these young people had never been to New York City before, and seeing their unforced excitement before, during and after the concert is completely charming.

Must fun of all, however, is basking in Chappelle's ability to be effortlessly funny. Whether he's making believe he's a pimp in a Dayton clothing store or charming little kids in the Bed-Stuy day-care center that was concert headquarters, his personality infuses the film with infectious good feelings.

Given that a good part of Chappelle's humor is about race -- his riff on how he knew the Washington, D.C., sniper was African American is classic -- it's not surprising that his choice of music leans toward groups that have a social and political consciousness. It's not every rock concert that's going to have an appearance by Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., the son of the Black Panther leader whose death was the focus of the riveting 1971 documentary, "The Murder of Fred Hampton."

Director Gondry and cinematographer Kuras and her team capture all this, not only bringing the music alive but also displaying the kind of keen eye for details that enliven coverage of the crowd out front and the performers backstage.

One questionable choice the film makes is its reluctance to clearly identify for the non-hard-core fan exactly who each singer is. We eventually find out most of what we need to know, but it could have been an easier process.

The music starts out with the driving beat of rap acts including West and Dead Prez. Although the intensity of these performances is always entertaining, the nature of the live event means that the lyrics are only sporadically understandable.

Better served are singers Badu and Scott, with Hill and the reunited Fugees providing the concert's emotional highlight with a killer rendition of the Roberta Flack classic "Killing Me Softly With His Song."

Not to be outdone, Jean treats the Central State students to a powerful rendition of his "President." Getting the last word in the closing credits crawl is of course Chappelle. He singles out members of his staff and says, "Thanks for pushing me on this one," before adding the perfect kicker: "Please don't push me anymore."


MPAA rating: R for language

A Rogue Pictures/Focus Features release. Director Michel Gondry. Producers Bob Yari, Dave Chappelle, Mustafa Abuelhija, Julie Fong. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Editor Sarah Flack, Jeff Buchanan. Music supervisor Corey Smyth. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

In general release.

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